New research: the sound of nature helps us relax

Research Findings and Resources

The sound of a waterfall, a babbling brook, the wind moving through the trees—these sounds may evoke for many a feeling of peace, rejuvenation and relaxation. As a mental health counselor, you may have recommended that your client spend some time in nature, go on a walk or take a hike in a relaxing place to help him or her to manage mental health concerns. New research has shown that the sounds of nature actually do help us to relax from a physiological standpoint. The relaxation is more pronounced especially if the person is stressed before hearing the natural sounds.

The study has shown that natural sounds affect our bodily systems. Our fight or flight responses and automatic nervous system show evidence of response to natural sounds. Participants in the study listened to sounds recorded from natural and artificial environments, and their brain activity was measured using an MRI. Also, autonomous nervous system activity was measured using heart rate changes.

Findings individuated that the areas in brain that are active when we are resting are different depending on the sounds playing. When listening to the natural sounds, participants reflected outward-directed attention, and when listening to the artificial sounds, the brain reflected an inward-directed attention (which is similar to anxiety, PTSD, depression). Also, participants performed better on a task using attention when listening to the natural sounds.

Interestingly, the amount of change in the nervous system was dependent in part on the baseline state of the participant before hearing the sounds. Those who were more stressed before showed the greatest amount of relaxation when they were listening to the natural sounds. For participants who were relaxed before, there was a slight increase in stress when they were listening to the natural sounds compared with artificial sounds.

For mental health professions, this research may have important implications. Listening to natural sounds in session to help someone to relax, and recommending that clients go somewhere to listen to natural sounds may now be considered an evidence-based approach to treatment!

References and Resources:

Gould van Praag, C. D., Garfinkel, S. N., Sparasci, O., Mees, A., Philippides, A. O., Ware, M., & ... Critchley, H. D. (2017). Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific Reports, 745273. doi:10.1038/srep45273

University of Sussex. (2017, March 30). It's true: The sound of nature helps us relax. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 2, 2017 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170330132354.htm